Have I relied on reasonable evidence to reach my conclusions?

At the cornerstone of American democracy stands the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal…..” These ideas provided the foundation for political movements ranging from the women’s movement to Ho Chi Minh’s declaration of Vietnamese independence. Yet the blueprint for this seminal document goes well beyond Thomas Jefferson’s most memorable phrases. Over 50% of the Declaration is devoted to providing evidence of “repeated injuries” and the “tyranny” of the King of Great Britain. The document details over 27 different grievances in a section that begins with these words: “To prove this, let facts be submitted to a candid world.” Indeed the framers of the Declaration of Independence devoted surprisingly little time to discussing philosophical principles in the document. Instead their deliberations were devoted to determining what evidence to use to support their fundamental claim.

This debate over evidence is in the grand tradition of all thoughtful men and women. The framers submitted their proof for all to judge and courageously ventured into an uncertain world. Such debates inevitably raise some difficult questions:

• What really “counts” as evidence?
• How should evidence be evaluated?
• How should contradictory evidence be weighed?

These questions are as fundamental to our life as the quality of the water we drink. They flow through our everyday discourse, influencing our decision making and shaping our view of the world. With a flip of a button, we can tap into a stream of images designed to persuade us to buy almost any conceivable product. Within seconds we can be swept away into a whirlpool of trivial factoids, immersed in pools of information, or whisked through the swift-moving rapids of a breaking news event. To a large extent, how we choose to navigate these tricky waters can determine the health of our minds, the safety of our bodies, and the fulfillment of our spirit.